People. Stories.

“My sister’s voice was like mountain water in a silver pitcher…” Scott Feifer read aloud the opening lines of “Silver Water,” a short story by Amy Bloom, as forty people listened and followed along on printed copies of the story. The listeners were suburban school teachers, teen boys from a residential treatment program, middle-aged moms, former gang members, young women recovering from addiction, business professionals, high school dropouts and people with Master’s degrees.

As Scott read on, we heard the story of Rose, an enormously talented young singer who is battling mental illness. Her younger sister, Violet, narrates the tale, revealing that her worst fear is that she, too, may “go crazy.” The girls’ father is a psychiatrist, and he grieves that he cannot save Rose. Their eccentric mother, a concert pianist, fiercely loves her two “warrior queen” daughters.

Violet’s description of the worst family therapist their family ever had caused many of us to laugh out loud. The compassion and grace of another therapist who saw behind Rose’s madness to who she really was drew approving murmurs from us.

When Scott read the final words of the story, full of tragedy and hope, it seemed none of us wanted to break the tender silence.

After a little while, Scott asked us a few questions about the story title, the characters, a few key events in the story. He drew us into dialogue about personal experiences with terrible therapists and wonderful therapists and what makes the difference. He asked how many of us were parents – and whether we’d ever felt helpless, not knowing how to help our child. The stories came pouring out of us, one after another. And we got a glimpse of all that we had in common.

Then Scott offered us three writing prompts, connecting our own lives and experiences to the story.

The first was connected to the opening of the story where Violet tells what Rose did once after their whole family attended a performance of La Traviata when Rose was fourteen and Violet was twelve. “She elbowed me in the parking lot and said, ‘Check this out.’ She opened her mouth unnaturally wide and her voice came out, so crystalline and bright that all the departing operagoers stood frozen by their cars, unable to take out their keys or open their doors until she had finished, and then they cheered like hell.” Violet goes on to say, “That’s what I like to remember, and that’s the story I told to all of her therapists. I wanted them to know her, to know that who they saw was not all there was to see.”

The writing prompt was: “Write about the things you want people to know about you that they cannot see. Write about what is beneath the surface of you. What is there to know that is not in ‘the file’?”

The second prompt was: “Write about someone you have loved that you could not save – or a time someone tried or wanted to save you.”

And the third: “Write about a ‘warrior queen’ that you have known.”

Scott’s only instructions: “Write for 6 or 7 minutes. Laugh or cry. Tell the truth.”

For the next ten minutes or so, the only sound in the room was the steady scritch of 40 pens across 40 sheets of paper. Adolescent boys, hats on backwards, hunched over their paper, wrote with fierce intensity. Young women, curled into their seats, held paper and pen close as they wrote and wrote and wrote. People whose lives and experiences were seemingly from different planets, sat side by side at the table, writing, writing. When Scott stopped us, saying, “Let’s all bring ourselves back to the group,” many expressed surprise that the time was up already.

Then he invited anyone who wanted to, to read aloud what we’d written. “You’ll be putting your story in the service of other people,” he explained. “There are risks: there’s a risk that people will know something about you that they didn’t know before. A risk that in reading aloud, you’ll feel differently about it than when you were writing it. All of that is okay.”

As one person after another after another after another read aloud what they’d written, fragile threads of pain, of love, of loss, of dreams, of hope and strength in each of our stories wove around and between all of us in the room.

I’ve been to a few workshops over the years where facilitators had everyone stand in a circle, and then gave one person a ball of yarn, instructing them to hold one end of the yarn and toss the ball to someone else, continuing the holding and tossing until all of us were connected via the strands of yarn. When one of us moved or spun or pulled or fell, everyone else in the circle felt it, we were all affected. The activity was meant to symbolize the web of our shared humanity.

But in that room with Scott Feifer and 39 other people, I felt that connection with everyone else in the room in a very real and tangible way. No ball of yarn required.

The program Scott Feifer leads is the Lancaster site of a national program called People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos. People & Stories aims to connect people through the power of literature & stories across racial, religious, class and cultural divides. Locally, P&S sessions are held at the Duke Street Library every Tuesday evening from now through September 27th, from 6:00PM until 7:45PM in the Windolph Room on the 2nd floor. Each week, the group will read a different short story and connect it through discussion and writing to their lives and each other.

Barbara Deming, an American feminist and advocate of nonviolent social change, once said, “The longer we listen to one another – with real attention – the more commonality we will find in all our lives. That is, if we are careful to exchange with one another life stories and not simply opinions.” At its heart, those kinds of connections are what People & Stories is all about.

Question of the Day

What is something you want people to know about you that they cannot see?

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: city life lancaster pa peace

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